In crude material terms, Donald Trump’s presidency benefited the media, with subscriptions, ratings and clicks all soaring. It’s therefore not surprising that lots of people believe his return to the center of our politics will once again generate obsessive interest. “When Trump Wins, So Does the Media,” the center-left writer Matthew Yglesias wrote in October. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump recently predicted that because of Trump’s presidential campaign, “cable news channels may soon see a resurgence.” Even warnings about the manifold ways a second Trump presidency could damage a free press tend to assume that four more years of MAGA pandemonium would be lucrative. The business model behind our ailing industry, wrote George Packer in The Atlantic, “works better with Trump.”
I’m not so sure this is true anymore. A few overarching questions animated Trump’s first term: Can he really get away with this? When will Republicans break with him? Will the law ever catch up? In a second Trump presidency, those questions would be answered. (Yes, never and no.) The constant hope that Trump could be exposed and even ousted would be gone. Thus among liberals, I suspect, the anxious hypervigilance sparked by Trump’s first election would be replaced, at least initially, by depression. In 2019, Viv Groskop wrote in The New York Review of Books about how some in Vladimir Putin’s Russia had resurrected the Soviet idea of internal exile or internal emigration, a disillusioned retreat from politics into private life and aesthetic satisfactions. If Trump is re-elected, I’d expect to see a lot of Americans adopting a similar stance as an emotional survival strategy. If that happens, the danger won’t be just to bottom lines in the news business. Though Trump thrives on attention, he’d be even more destructive without the pressure of sustained public outrage.
The Atlantic writer Jennifer Senior recently described the twitchy psychic landscape of the Trump-era liberal news fanatic: “I’d spent nearly five years scanning the veld for threats, indulging in the most neurotic form of magical thinking, convinced that my monitoring of Twitter alone was what stood between Trump and national ruin.” Such compulsive news consumers were a huge factor in the Trump-era journalism boom. “The increase that news organizations saw in terms of audience engagement during the first Trump administration, a lot of that was driven by people who consume a lot of news. They were just consuming more and more and more of it,” said Benjamin Toff, a journalism professor and an author of the new book “Avoiding the News.” “But a lot of the rest of the public, I think, was pretty disengaged from it.”
Since then, the ranks of the disengaged have grown. Trump keeps doing appalling things: In just the past couple of days, he nearly got thrown out of the second defamation trial brought against him by a woman he sexually abused, according to a jury, and then claimed on social media that presidents should enjoy absolute immunity from criminal prosecution even when they “cross the line.” But his misdeeds have lost the capacity to shock, and they no longer drive conversations. That might change if he is once again president, but like a virus, he won’t generate as strong a reaction when he’s no longer novel.